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The art vs science debate: Why can’t we fully embrace creative effectiveness?


“Perhaps the single most important word in the lexicon of advertising is ‘test’... Testing new ideas, new headlines, new media combinations. Test, test, test. That’s why everyone should start his advertising career in direct response, because in direct response, you test all the time.” David Ogilvy.

Since the 1960s, the ‘father of advertising’ talked about new opportunities for creatives to understand what makes people tick, new creative iterations and to “test, test, test”. Ogilvy was ahead of his time in creating seriously distinctive assets in his campaigns. Language fizzing with mouth-feel appeal, like ‘Schweppervesence’, or a brand character that no other had a patch on, ‘The man in the Hathaway shirt’.

60 odd years later, the need to cut through has been amplified by seismic shifts in the web, mobile devices and social media. Also, we are speaking to an audience that evidences an impatient mindset and distraction, which has significant impact on attention, emotional engagement and recall of messaging.

Simultaneously, we have never had more insight into what people respond to, through the emergence of areas such as behavioural economics, and opportunities to really understand the true creative triggers through neuroscience. This aligns with clients continuing to ask us for increased effectiveness in their marketing and communications.

While adland grumbles that it’s time to consign ‘Mad Men’ to the dustbin, based on the above, one could argue that that Ogilvy’s mantra has never been more relevant.

Given the reverence for doyens like Ogilvy, why do conversations around creative remain so contentious? At HeyHuman, we are blessed with an executive creative director who is open to behavioural perspectives influencing ideas, but when I explained this to a peer in an equivalent agency group, he said: “Our executive creative director would tell you to stick your insights up your ass.”

As a creative industry, it is vital we recognise the changed context we are in and embrace new opportunities presented by behavioural insights to make the most of the science of creativity instead of retrenched thinking. Why do we still insist that it’s art versus science, when the best approach in the context of digital lives is to marry the two? Most of this isn’t just resistance to the idea, it’s about making the theory work in practice (and at pace). Our managing director recently described this as akin to “MOTing a car on the motorway”.

Three ways to make art+science work

One solution is to focus on truly collaborative sessions where clients, account teams, planning and creative really work together via an accessible and applicable approach to behavioural science. Most sessions can be covered off in 90 minutes and success is genuinely a game of two halves. Collaboration is one half of the battle; pace is the other. The practice works in three strands: relationships, behaviours and ‘brain-friendly creative’.


Our brand relationships research led us to think about a new relationships mindset, where people prize ease, accessibility and value over loyalty. People, after all, love the simplicity of deciding whether to swipe left, or swipe right these days.

‘Brand love’ matters less than marketers think. Brands reframe their relationship around more human-like relationships. We ground this approach in 14 relationship typologies such as team-mates, friends with benefits, secret flings etc.

Like Ogilvy, by reframing the brand relationship to be more pertinent and personal, brands can maximise fleeting connections, and give people the relationships they want, rather than the relationships brands want with people. We can see this with Barclaycard. With innovation like Bpay, it is delivering to more fleeting, contactless interactions to build behavioural saliency rather than trying to change perceptions.


Instead of trying to change perceptions, focus on changing behaviours. This is more effective for clients and bridges the gap between marketing and business objectives.

After working with behavioural economics, we saw that while focusing on behaviours is right, behavioural economics (BE) is too complex and slow for most clients and agencies to achieve effective collaborative working.

We worked with experts to develop a three question approach that allows BE to be applicable through a collaborative process that works across departments, and can get us to idea territories in 90 minutes.

Focus is set on the behaviour we are trying to change, the barriers to that behaviour, what comparisons people are making (or the comparisons we could encourage them to make). This last section is most interesting – often reframing the brand challenge based on out of category examples. For example, based on ‘free range’ being a simple shortcut comparison that means natural/better tasting, this gave us the idea of positioning Addlestones cloudy cider as ‘Free Range Cider.’

This type of workshop approach is the physical manifestation of marrying art and science, and allows the iteration of ideas with all the right bums on seats.

Brain-Friendly Creative

While people read six newspaper pages of information in Ogilvy’s time, people now spread their attention wide – reading the equivalent of six newspapers per day.

People only have finite head space, so communications must be made easier to process for overloaded audiences. To account for this, we distill a brain-friendly approach into 3Rs – the need to be recognised, resonant and relevant.


Following the work of Byron Sharp, intelligent use of distinctive visual assets will reinforce the brand at a subconscious level. One can see this at work in the recent rebrand of Deliveroo where it simplified its design and ingeniously used hyper-reflective material on riders' apparel to really punch up its key brand character ‘Roo’. In addition to solid design principles, it is also important to use analysis tools to review relative levels of distinctiveness and complexity. This is truly living Ogilvy’s mantra, testing designs with creatives in real-time.


MRI studies have shown that certain language resonates with us as it unlocks existing sense memories. For example, Ogilvy’s ‘Schweppervescence’ phrase triggers physical associations of fizziness and refreshment. Such multi-sensorial cues encourage recall in the brain, and this is something agencies should focus on.


The final element we focus on is context. Through meeting the mindset of the audience, and delivering messages to meet behaviour in a specific medium – like Geico’s short form “unskippable” YouTube pre-rolls – marketers can be more effective by aligning with people’s goals.

Overall, like Ogilvy, we should appreciate anew that value comes from connecting with people in a way that makes sense to them personally amidst the maelstrom of modern media. Techniques informed by science can help brands better understand their opportunity to resonate amidst fleeting interactions. In fact, based on media fragmentation, partial attention and clients’ requirements for greater effectiveness, Ogilvy’s ‘test, test, test’ mantra is overdue a comeback.

With channels like social, he would be pleased to see we are all being schooled in instant direct response.

To find out more about how we make effective communications, download our free whitepaper on Brain-Friendly Creative below. 

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About Author

Dan Machen
Dan Machen

Director of Innovation and Closet Jedi

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